The day before Midnights, Taylor Swift’s tenth album, was set to release, news of a leak spread through social media. Quickly, the consensus between both fans and casual listeners alike seemed to be that the 70’s rock album the aesthetic promised was not going to come. Instead, what was released in its place was a mess of haphazardly put-together lyrics covered by Jack Antonoff’s boring production I have heard for about the thousandth time by now.
I didn’t want to believe that the album I had spent the last month anticipating could really be another soulless pop album, but once the full album was released, it turned out I was wrong. The album was so much more than that and so much worse.
Production-wise, there is absolutely nothing to say about Midnights. While Swift describes herself as a “monster on the hill” in the track “Anti-Hero,” there is nothing scarier than the current grip that Jack Antonoff has on pop music. Every song here sounds like a song I’ve heard before, either by Swift or by any of the other Antonoff pop girls who talk themselves into adding more and more of the same synths and drum beats to every track. It’s boring, it’s predictable, and it drowns out lyrics that aren’t quite sure what purpose they want to serve.
Two years ago, Taylor Swift released folklore, an album that she described as blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. These songs, while supposedly telling stories about characters outside of herself, ended up with deeply intrsospective, personal lyrics. Swift explored themes of isolation and loneliness, of never feeling good enough and doubting herself as an artist, of lost love she was never able to get over, and of dealing with loss on an immeasurable scale. Under the guise of fiction, Swift was able to deliver what was seemingly her most personal album, able to fall back on her words that none of it was real. After the candy-coated insincerity that was Lover, folklore felt like the closest we would get to Taylor Swift baring her soul no matter what other people thought of it.
In the Midnights announcement post, Swift promised an album about “meeting ourselves” and teased various songs as being introspective and looking right at herself and her own insecurities. Whereas folklore told personal stories about fictional situations, Midnights would be the album where she finally showed the real version of herself. However, what was released instead turns its back the moment it is about to shake its own hand. Yet, Swift promised this all along in the beginning paragraph of that same post. In the “self-made cage” she’s lived in since debuting as an artist, she made her biggest mistake: trying to define a woman who lost the ability to define herself almost sixteen years ago.
Taylor Swift’s debut album came out when she was sixteen, making her famous for half of her life. By the time her brain had fully formed at age twenty-five, she had released five studio albums, each one bigger than the last. With each album cycle, lasting two years each, Swift not only released new music, but released a brand new version of herself to go with it. Fearless was all about ballgowns and curly hair, Speak Now all about side-braids and whimsy. With Red, she leaned into a Joni Mitchell phase and vintage dresses, while 1989 welcomed crop-tops and skater skirts.
Underneath all of these was a Real Taylor. A Taylor Swift that her fans could easily recognize beneath the new aesthetic and sound despite never meeting her. She was sweet, she was a hopeless romantic, she was inoffensive. In her free time, she baked cookies and pet cats. She never drank or smoke, but she loved to spend time with her parents and meet fans for hours at a time. Boys broke her heart, but she still dreamed of a perfect fairytale romance that could sweep her off her feet. She was the most effortless sweetheart that America had ever received, yet was constantly teetering on the precipice of public enemy number one.
So, how is she supposed to get up and earnestly tell that same public that still associates her with that perfect girl that she no longer wants to deliver the “1950s shit they want from” her as she does in “Lavender Haze”? By covering it up in haphazard metaphors and uninteresting music.
In each track on Midnights, Swift gets dangerously close to admitting something personal about herself. Each track contains a confession wrapped up in something so impersonal it doesn’t even feel like real words. On folklore, she hid behind her own storytelling, weaving beautiful worlds that felt like they could exist outside of her own. On Midnights, there is nothing to hide behind but her own fear. A real self glimmers through the cracks of Midnights, but it always disappears before it can be fully accessed.
However, the problem with looking for a real Taylor Swift is that the real Taylor Swift exists as an entity intermingled with the Taylor Swift brand. When a public image has been crafted on the farming out of her private life, the line between personal and public ceases to exist. The insincerity lining every song in Midnights is the person she happens to be. Once I stopped viewing Midnights as an attempt to be deeply personal and raw with herself, and instead as an attempt to have a conversation and reckon with the monster of a fanbase she created, the album began to make more sense to me.
On “Anti-Hero,” Swift finally acknowledges something her critics have been asking her to admit her entire career: “it’s me / I’m the problem, it’s me.” Rather than viewing this as an admission of fault in her relationships and personal falling-outs, this instead appears to be an admission of guilt in creating the gilded cage she now lives in. Throughout her career, Taylor Swift has encouraged her fans to parse through the details of her personal life, searching for meaning. She has invited them to her home, interacted with them on social media, learned their names and called them her friends. For the past few album cycles, Swift has encouraged her fans to look for hidden meaning and clues in everything she says, using the “easter eggs” to get closer to her. Every interaction she has with her fanbase urges them to strengthen the parasocial bond, gaining her hordes of loyal followers who will defend her and throw money at her for eternity. However, this bid for love from her fans has also destroyed any small thread of privacy she could ever be granted.
While part of this is simply part of the price of fame, the rest is a trap of Swift’s own making. In attempting to be liked by everyone, she has given them full access to every move that she makes. She admits this herself in the track “Mastermind,” singing, “no one wanted to play with me as a little kid / So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since / To make them love me and make it seem effortless / This is the first time I’ve felt the need to confess.” And the scheme worked at first, but her own genius scheming trapped her in the themes she’s found herself singing about ever since.
Before the release of Midnights, Taylor Swift talked about how her song “Lavender Haze” was partly about dealing with the “weird rumors” that she and her boyfriend have faced during the course of their six-year-long relationship. Immediately, Swift’s most rabid fans jumped on this and began blaming everyone they possibly could. Everyone but themselves. They pointed their fingers at “Gaylors,” Taylor Swift fans who claim the star is secretly gay, the media claiming they’ve broken up, fans who believe her relationship is fake, and everyone else they could get their hands on. However, once the song was actually released, it turned out that Swift was actually trying to reference the very same people who drew pitchforks for her defense.
Throughout the album, Swift pushes back on the most common fan theory that has existed ever since Reputation came out five years ago: the alleged secret marriage between her and her boyfriend Joe Alwyn. Every time Swift does anything in the public eye, her fans are quick to claim that her and Alwyn are actually secretly engaged. That the lyrics to her song “peace” are actually marriage vows, or that she is naming songs after secret children that her and her boyfriend have. All the while, these same fans are accusing others of making up rumors about her life, or making her want to stop interacting with the public because of the accusations they sling at her. By making her fans feel like her friends, Swift has granted them permission to feel as though they are not overstepping by digging into her private life. For years, she has condoned and even encouraged this, but amidst the noise of Midnights, she finally takes a step back to admit that it is not the “haters” or media that drive her crazy, it’s her fans.
This admission seems to make her far too uncomfortable to even grapple with, however. She admits to disguising her “narcissism as covert altruism” to get attention and admiration from her fans, vaguely referencing the acts she has performed to make her fans feel as though she is their generous host rather than a star in need of their attention. While she calls out her fans for seeing her as someone who needs to be a wife or wants to be a bride, she hides it in heavy synths and drum beats, trying to distract her fans from realizing that she has become sick of them. Even now that she has become emboldened enough to admit her frustration, the need to be loved by them wins out. Her most vulnerable album cannot grapple with the fact that Swift at her most vulnerable is not Swift at her most likable. The songs are fighting with themselves, trying to drown out their own words lest a confession sneaks by and gets to the heart of the issue.
Beyond her own distaste for her vulnerability, Swift is also made to engage with something that she has not yet admitted on past tracks about how her own fame has affected her. On past songs such as “The Lucky One” and “Nothing New,” Swift has opened up about how fame has made her feel as though she has been chewed up and spit out by society. She discusses feeling used and being shot down by the general public without anyone taking accountability. On Midnights, Swift is able to acknowledge that while fame may have trapped her, she desires it and seeks it out constantly. Fame is not the problem, her own desire for it is.
Throughout her career, fame has been treated by Swift as something that fell upon her, or a dream come true that she is lucky to possess. As she became older, the media and general public were painted as hunters or trappers, people with weapons who wish to capture and kill her. As someone who became famous at such a young age, I have no desire to blame Taylor Swift for what has happened to her over the course of her career, and truly do not think that her undeveloped brain could have ever fathomed just how famous she could become. That being said, it is impressive to see her take accountability for the fact that she is the one still chasing fame, it is not the one chasing her.
In her documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift briefly discusses how people who get famous feel frozen at the age they became famous. As shown by the number of songs written in her adulthood referencing or entirely about being in high school, Swift has been stuck around sixteen ever since her first album was released. On “Anti-Hero” she references herself getting “older but never wiser,” another lyric to add to the collection of Swift trying to grapple with the fact that she is essentially frozen in amber. While past albums have seen Swift attempting to understand this by blaming the concept of fame or the people in the media who compare her to past versions of herself, she is instead able to blame her own quest for fame for the pain she has caused herself.
The admission that her own quest for fame keeps her in a cycle of her own pain allows the trauma of fame to shine a little brighter through her songs. Rather than stopping at the issue she has been singing about for years, the spotlight shining on her, she is able to cut through the surface and reach the real pain that has been unwillingly thrust upon her. Despite her fans wanting to keep her frozen at age sixteen for her entire life, viewing her as the very same teenage prodigy she was when she began her career, Taylor Swift has been lamenting the loss of her girlhood since it was stolen by the men that fame brought into her life.
What Midnights keeps attempting to discuss without having the tools to do so, is the pain of having to live as the girl everyone wants her to be while mourning the loss of that girl at the same time. On “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” Swift demands, “give me back my girlhood / it was mine first.” While on every other track on Midnights, the swelling music attempts to drown out the confessions she is making, on this track, her repeating the chorus over and over against music growing steadily louder demonstrates how unheard she still feels in her life. She is stuck as the teenage girl she was when she debuted, but that girl has been mangled and destroyed by men who understand that her fame can simultaneously infantilize her while making everyone see her as a capable adult. She was nineteen when thirty-two-year-old John Mayer took her girlhood. While the now thirty-two-year-old Taylor Swift can recognize that nineteen is not an adult, she was trapped in that same “not a girl, not yet a woman” phase that Britney Spears was driven mad by as well.
The problem is, Midnights is the very same self-made cage that Swift is attempting to escape. She gets so close every time to breaking her own bars, admitting her own fault in manipulating and creating her own self-image, and now being forced to live within that. Yet, by refusing to ever fully break the surface and point fingers, something she does to make sure that same fanbase she wants to call out doesn’t ever realize she’s talking about them, the album falls flat. Her anger shines through every once in a while, but the moment she realizes that it does, she turns on her heel and falls back on the very same flimsy ideas she’s mined again and again. There is a Real Taylor Swift hidden somewhere within Midnights, but that same Taylor Swift has been created and can be destroyed by the people she is attempting to will away. Without her fans, there is no Taylor Swift, but with them, she will always be the girl she is simultaneously trying to reckon with and discard.
At the core of Midnights is a reflective, introspective, deeply vulnerable album full of admissions that Taylor Swift has never been brave enough to speak aloud. Yet, thrown all around it in order to distract from that core is glitter, brashness, and purposeful distortion. At first, I felt disappointed by this lack of ability to commit to her own self-awareness, wanting something stripped back and personal rather than the same production I’ve heard a million times. But why am I owed that? Who am I to insist that I know the core of Taylor Swift better than she does? The reality of this album is that this is who Taylor Swift is, and this is who she has always been. She is a confession wrapped in glitter, vulnerability in a candy-wrapper. She is a mirrorball that has reflected my own thoughts back to me for so long that I have grown to believe that we share them. I desire an easy-to-digest level of introspection from her, yet instead, I have been gifted the reality of her, which is the reality of every woman I know.
Hidden within the fragments of fantasy, the desired version of ourselves, is reality. The fear lacing every track on Midnights is what truly shows the Real Taylor Swift in a way the lyrics cannot ever fully do. The Taylor Swift who can admit that she’s the problem is the real Taylor Swift, but so is the Taylor Swift that wants to throw loud music at the problem to distract her audience from hearing what she is saying. The Taylor Swift that wants to be liked is the same one who forces you to like her. The honesty of Midnights is just as real as the dishonesty, the desire to save her reputation while throwing it out the window and allowing everyone to peek behind the curtain. Where the deeply personal and the blindingly public collide, that is where Midnights exists.